Love in the Real World

Prevention Magazine . March, 2007
He’s irritating (you are, too). How to keep it blissful anyway

My high school sweetheart was the most interesting person I’d ever met. He’d spent several years in Europe and was multilingual, suave, and dashing. But I had trouble with a habit he’d picked up in his time abroad—that of bathing infrequently.

I became rabidly fixated on getting him to wash his hair more often and dress in familiar, lackluster American-style clothing. I wasn’t subtle as I tried to extinguish the very uniqueness that had attracted me in the first place. I actually dragged him to the sink and washed his hair!

I’m a little wiser now. My husband, Gordon, and I celebrate and respect each other, including our idiosyncrasies. He knows I’m a workaholic who isn’t always available to go for a walk or take in a movie. “That’s my girl,” he’ll chuckle as I scurry around like a maniac—which makes me want to slow down and spend more time with him. And I know he can sometimes mull things over a little too long—but I love his depth and thoughtfulness.

Still, it can be hard not to nag or manipulate when there’s something about your partner you want to change—and let’s face it, every husband or lover has an irritating habit or two. Yet pushing and criticism don’t work very well; you’re more likely to foster anger and resistance than the improvement you’re after. Fortunately, when you replace blame and judgment with acceptance, intimacy grows.

But if you want to stop trying to “fix” your partner, you’re probably going to have to work on yourself: It won’t do either of you any good for you to bite your tongue and simmer with resentment. Howard Markman, PhD, director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, has spent more than 30 years investigating what makes marriage work. One of his observations is that it doesn’t take a major miracle to shift the dynamic of a relationship. A small adjustment in your own behavior can make a huge difference. So when you find yourself wishing you could change your partner, here are a few tips for transforming…yourself.

Laugh at Yourself

Just as I tried to do with my high school beau, women often unconsciously want to remake their partners into a version of themselves, says Loretta LaRoche, a humorist and stress-management expert who lectures at the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Boston. But the attempt is doomed—and a little crazy. So she uses humor to get people to examine what they’re doing without making them defensive. She might ask a woman to imagine her burly mate in a dress, talking in a high-pitched voice. Does she really want him to be just like her? If the answer’s no, she says, focus on appreciating the differences that brought you together to begin with.

Make Your Happiness Your Business

Talia was a physician who attended one of my workshops. She had chosen a demanding life—and, maybe for balance, had also chosen Steve, a more laid-back man, as her husband. But she found herself resenting what had drawn her to him. Even the crumbs he left on the counter drove her crazy, and she wondered, Doesn’t anyone around here do anything but me?

Nagging Steve just made him feel under-appreciated and angry. Finally, she realized, “I’m making myself miserable, I’m making him miserable, and I’m going to lose him.” So she let Steve know she was getting off his case. She put a bumper sticker on her car that read Stop Global Whining. It worked: He appreciated her willingness to look at her own behavior, and he felt more valued. Did he start cleaning up his crumbs? No. But they stopped bickering so much and began enjoying each other again.

Be a Flattering Mirror

Bill O’Hanlon, a Santa Fe, NM-based psychotherapist and author of Do One Thing Different, has said: “If you want to be certain your partner will act like a jerk, accuse him of being one.” Actually, he used a different term than jerk, but his point is that your expectations are powerful. If all you see when you look at your husband are his flaws and failings, you’ll make it very hard for him to be the best version of himself. Focus on one of his strengths—and if nothing comes to mind, think of what your friends like and respect about him. Their view may be clearer. After all, it’s not clouded by the thought of the dirty clothes he keeps leaving on the floor.

Remember that just about every trait can be seen as good or bad. What one person views as argumentative, a second dubs passionate. Another old boyfriend of mine was a bit of a hippie, and it used to bother him that I love clothes and spend time on my appearance. Gordon sees the same trait in me but responds very differently: When we’re out, he takes pleasure in pointing out dresses in store windows he thinks I might like.

When I looked in the mirror held up by my old boyfriend, I saw someone small-minded and petty. When I look in Gordon’s mirror, I see a creative, aesthetic, playful woman. Guess which relationship is better?

Of course, Gordon isn’t perfect; nor am I. He still wishes that I were less busy, for the sake of my own happiness. But he supports me in being who I am. And as a result of that acceptance and love—the true sources of positive change—I’ve decided to slow down. This will be my last regular column for Prevention. I want to thank both the magazine and you, the readers, for giving me 3 wonderful years in which to say my piece.

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